Our declining insect population


Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu  | February 12, 2019

With the biomass of insects declining, a crises like this could spell disaster for the environment.

Researcher Francisco Sanchez-Bayo  published a paper through the Biological Conservation Journal estimating a 40% decrease in insects within the century if the population doesn’t stop falling at its current rate of 2.5% per year.

Francisco reminds us that “bugs”–which make up 70% of the animal kingdom–are essential to our ecosystems, helping pollinate plants and regulate other, more harmful species of insects. Insects also serve as food for a large percentage of the bird population, and some horrofic cases of birds eating each other to survive when faced with a lack of insect food have been reported.

A combination of factors, including destruction of habitat and pollution from commercial fertilizers and pesticides are some of the main causes behind insects’ steady decline, though these are not easy problems to fix without good alternatives on hand.

Ultimately, more sustainable agricultural practices will give us a foothold with this problem, and can help us bring out bug population back where it belongs.


On The Radio- Microplastic pollution affecting aquatic organisms

Plastic washed up on a beach shore (Neil Brown/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| February 11, 2019

This weeks segment looks at developing research on the effects of microplastic pollution.


Scientists are still researching the dangerous effects of microplastic pollution. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

A microplastic is defined as any piece of plastic measuring five millimeters in size or smaller. Every year 400 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide. A significant percentage of the plastic becomes litter and can take hundreds of years to decompose. Humans and other species can absorb plastic chemicals and aquatic organisms can absorb these small pieces of plastic into their skin.

Dr. Natalia Ivleva and her team from the Technical University of Munich Institute of Hydochemistry recently wrote a summary report of the technology they are using to test the effects of micro plastic on species. 

When scientists began to notice plastic entering the environment they used optical methods to observe damage. 

More recently scientists began utilizing heat analysis paired with gas chromatography. These methods helps determine the quantity and type of plastic but struggle to determine the size of the particles. 

Using new methods researchers at the Munich Institute were able to confirm plastic in the digestive tracts of water fleas and that mussels digest small particles of plastic under their shells.

Over the next several decades, plastic pollution is predicted to increase. At the end of her report Dr Ivelva emphasized the importance of plastic recycling in the new year. 

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason. 

CGRER Looks Forward: Geographer Eric Tate

Julia Poska | February 8, 2019

Eric Tate, shot by Julia Poska 2019

Natural disasters are enormously costly. The U.S. incurred an estimated $306 billion in physical damage from extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods in 2017 alone.

CGRER member Eric Tate, a professor in the University of Iowa geography department,  quantifies disaster impacts in a bigger way.

“Looking at these impacts just by dollars affected may not really get at the true impact of how people are affected, how their livelihoods are affected,” he said.

Tate studies the social effects of disasters, with an emphasis on floods. Looking beyond physical damage, he determines how population characteristics like age, disability, education and poverty create social vulnerability to harm.

Listen to Tate explain social vulnerability in his own words. 

Disaster impacts are typically distributed unevenly; certain groups suffer disproportionately due to social, political, economic and institutional inequalities. These processes may debilitate some households while neighbors go unaffected during the same storm.

Using mainly government disaster relief data, Tate has measured and mapped the social reality of disasters like 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. He’s currently examining 2015 flooding in South Carolina. His research aims to inform planning and policy by lending insight into how various population characteristics contribute to vulnerability.

“What is needed in this field is a bunch of studies looking at different disasters at different scales of analysis, looking at different variables, looking at different outcomes,” he said. “When you put them all together, now you start to get some generalizable understanding.”

Officials can use such analyses to help vulnerable populations before, during and after disasters with adjusted mitigation and primary response plans. The social dimension of sustainability is often underemphasized, but is crucial for implementing effective change.

“If we want to have sustainable futures but the gains aren’t equitably shared, then is that sustainable?” Tate asked.

Tate on the need for research into the spillover effects of disasters. 

He sees several ways policymakers on all levels can more deeply embed equity into decision making. They can model vulnerability among their constituents themselves or look to academic research that does so. They can seek to be inclusive and involve a diverse cross section of the population early on in the decision making process.

Tate pointed to the National Environmental Policy Act as well, which requires the government to complete environmental impact assessments prior to undergoing all federally funded executive projects. He thinks a similar statute could mandate assessments of the far-reaching social consequences of such projects.

He also advised considering climate change in proactive disaster planning, as atmospheric carbon seems to amplify climatological weather events. In Iowa, flooding has already become pronouncedly more intense and will continue to get worse in coming decades.

“Regardless of your belief in climate change or not, we’re seeing changes in hydrological extremes,” Tate said.

Tate on how to help protect yourself and your community from flooding. 

Intensified flooding will increase pressure on the already vulnerability and likely push some previously unaffected households beyond their coping capacities.

Tate calls for updated statistical analysis to better inform everyone from city planners to homeowners about risk and vulnerability in different areas. The 100-year floodplain of today may become the 50-year floodplain in 15 years, but flood maps are based on historical frequencies and do not reflect projections for the future.

“Trying to understand future risk based on past occurrences is likely to lead you to faulty conclusions,” he said. “We should be thinking maybe a little less probabilistically and a little more possibilistically.”



***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

Soil conservation demonstrations extended after early success

Water that washes off of farm fields poses major challenges for water quality in Iowa (flickr).

Julia Poska | February 7, 2019

Last week, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig announced a three year extension and $2 million of extra state funding for three innovative projects promoting soil conservation and water quality on farms.

These projects  are part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative, which partially funds 65 water quality projects around the state. This initiative is part of the larger Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, an effort to reduce harmful nutrient runoff from farm fields into waterways.

The Taylor County Water Quality Initiative, one of the three extended projects, identifies specific areas on farms that could benefit from alternative practices like land retirement or drainage management. Over 60 farmers have so far used the program to reduce nutrient runoff while maintaining or increasing profitability.

The Iowa Seed Corn Cover Crops Initiative engages partners like the Iowa Seed Association to encourage cover cropping: growing alternative crops on otherwise bare soil during the off season. Cover crops hold soil in place and can help with weed management and soil compaction issues. Some seed companies say this initiative has increased cover cropping among their clients from less than 10 percent to over 50 percent.

The Central Iowa Watershed Management Authority Project has so far installed five wetlands, five saturated buffers and two bioreactors on farms. Saturated buffers use strips of wetland to filter nutrients from drainage water, and bioreactors use organic carbon sources, like wood chips, for denitrification. Both are expensive and difficult for most farmers to install without assistance.

Iowa Water Quality Initiative projects like these are funded by both state and private money, as well as in-kind donations. Other active projects target entire watersheds and demonstrate methods for improving urban water quality.

Fluorochemicals and our water supply

paper scrap lot
Food wrappers, waxy papers, and other products contain fluorochemicals | Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | February 6th, 2019

Fluorochemicals are a rising concern for environmentalists everywhere, as the compounds are being found in rivers, in soil, and in people’s bloodstreams.

A fluorochemical is a compound used to repel water and grease, and it’s used on an astounding number of items: shoes, raincoats, umbrellas, non-stick pans, food wrappers This family of compounds, was created in the 1930s by strengthening carbon chains with fluorine atoms. Because of these incredibly strong bonds, fluorochemicals don’t break down in grease or water–and they don’t biodegrade.

Fluorochemicals have something of a sordid history, as the debate about its adverse effect on health has been present since the 1990s. Manufacturing companies used to use two types of compounds in their products specifically, PFOAs and PFOSs. In the early 2000s, facing mounting evidence that Fluorochemical exposure leads to high chances of cancer and pregnancy risks, companies agreed to phase out its use, opting for a different formula–PFAs, a compound that is being currently used today.

Unfortunately, this compound also uses carbon and flourine, With many manufacturers reluctant to share more information on their chemical compounds, environmental chemists and epidemiologists globally are starting over with their research, trying to figure out if this new brand of chemical is any less–or any more–harmful than its predecessors.



Climate change: views around the United States

change map

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | February 5th, 2019

Data recently released by Yale shows a breakdown of the American public’s opinion towards climate change.

The visuals are broken down region by region, created after a team of scientists working through the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication computed available data from local polls (as polling on local levels is time-consuming and costly). Using two data sets and cross-referencing their information constantly, Yale researchers were able to create a fairly accurate model estimating the general national stance on climate change.

Overall, around 70% of those surveyed believed that climate change was a real, tangible phenomenon. There are some naysayers as well, those that stand with their belief that climate change–at least, change as depicted in scientific and general media–is not a current threat.

While the breakdown of information is as recent as Spring of 2018, the researchers warn that no dataset is completely accurate, and there will always be a small margin of error.

You can access the map and dataset here.


On The Radio- Detecting algal blooms

Algal blooms in Lake Erie (michiganseagrant/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| February 4, 2019

This weeks segment looks at new technology for detecting harmful algal blooms.


Scientists may soon be able to detect harmful algal blooms from the sky. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

A team of researchers at the University of Iowa is developing a drone to detect harmful algal blooms in lakes and reservoirs. It will use remote sensing to collect aerial data with special infrared cameras. Currently, water samples are collected to monitor and detect harmful algae and toxins. 

The most common toxin-producing algae in Iowa is blue green algae, or cyanobacteria. It can cause rashes, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems for beachgoers. Last summer this toxin contaminated drinking water in Greenfield, Iowa. The drone will hopefully make detecting harmful algal blooms easier and allow monitors to catch them sooner.

The project is being funded by a seed grant from the University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, a research center which focuses especially on water quality issues in the state. 

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.